ELLEN BARRY and BETWA SHARMA
Mohammed Akhtar’s former neighbours keep stopping by to tell him that it is time for him to come home, that there is really nothing to be afraid of.
They try to coax him, reminding him that Hindu and Muslim families lived together in his village for generations before September, when a two-day spasm of religious violence engulfed the area, sending about 50,000 people fleeing from their homes.
Four months later, an estimated 15,000 Muslims remain in sprawling makeshift tent cities in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, refusing to believe it is safe to return. In deepening cold, family members slept clinging to one another for warmth while icy water dripped through the tarps overhead. By mid-December, according to the government, 35 children in the camps had died.
Stung by negative publicity, local officials have undertaken a new push to clear the camps. This week, Akhtar stood in the middle of a field of empty foundations in the village of Loi, where shreds of brightly coloured fabric hinted at the 1,800 people who had been evicted the day before. But he, like thousands of his neighbours, said he would still refuse to return home.
“Look, they come to us and say, ‘Please come back, it’s our responsibility to make sure you’re safe,’?” said Akhtar, 40, a construction worker whose bare feet, clad in rubber slippers, were chalky and deeply cracked. “We don’t believe them. Where was their responsibility when we were being attacked? We were trying to call people for help, but the police had their phone switched off.”
There is nothing new about religious violence in India, or the malignant, slow-moving changes that follow in its wake. Though riots here generally last a few days, coming to a halt when the police arrive in force, by that time they have already altered the social fabric, injecting suspicion and paranoia into regions where religious groups once mixed freely. In the western state of Gujarat, more than 20,000 Muslims who fled during the riots of 2002 were still living in relief camps 10 years later, according to Amnesty International.
The divisions are made worse by the miserable conditions that often await those who flee. Over the years, India has managed to provide adequate relief for survivors of natural disasters, but not for riot victims - at different points they have been Muslims, Hindu Pandits and Sikhs - in large part because it is politically risky to take sides in such a conflict, critics say.
But this winter, a crucial election season, the squalid camps came to bear their own risks, standing as graphic evidence of state failure, said Farah Naqvi, a writer and activist. So they, too, are disappearing.
“Once they have scattered to the wind, the story stops,” she said. “The job for those of us trying to give any kind of relief becomes nearly impossible, though we are trying to track clusters of survivors. It is an attempt to obliterate any evidence of the camps, and the survivors are now scattered to the wind.”
With the liquidation of the Loi camp, all 41 camps in the district of Muzaffarnagar are now closed, and the neighbouring district of Shamli will follow suit, largely because the cold has made it unsafe to live there, said Kaushal Raj Sharma, a top official in Muzaffarnagar.
The story of Akhtar, who left behind a handsome house in the village of Kharad, around two miles from the tent camp in Uttar Pradesh, demonstrates how difficult it will be to knit together what was torn apart in two days.
Kharad, a labyrinth of neat brick buildings and cobbled alleys, is home to 12,000 people - about a quarter of them Muslims, who have traditionally held the roles of farm hands, builders, washerwomen and weavers. Their employers and customers are Jat landowners, prosperous Hindus who dominate local politics.
On an afternoon last week, Akhtar’s Jat neighbours said they would happily welcome him back to Kharad, and led a reporter to his heavy, padlocked front gate, to show that his house had been left untouched.
A neighbour, Vikrant Malik, 20, called Akhtar a “very nice guy,” and said he had telephoned him repeatedly to try to persuade him to come home - among other reasons, because Akhtar, a builder, had begun working on the Malik family’s house before he fled. “I like him,” Malik said, “and I will continue to like him.”
But Malik dismissed, with a chuckle, the notion that Akhtar might feel insecure returning. Nor does he have sympathy for the deaths of Muslim children in the camps, calling it “the fault of the mom and dad.” He looked exasperated, and said that five of his acquaintances in the village were in jail, arrested for taking part in the violence.
Nearly all of the village’s 3,500 Muslims fled their homes that day, village officials said - some hiding motionless in fields of 10-foot-high sugar cane. By the time the cloud of violence cleared, 61 people in the surrounding area were dead.
The Uttar Pradesh government did not identify Kharad as one of the nine villages that faced serious violence, so those who fled from there will not receive compensation. Meanwhile, Jats in Kharad are increasingly contemptuous of those who refuse to return, saying they are greedy freeloaders.
Akhtar, who has relocated his family’s two tents to a patch of unused land in the predominately Muslim village of Loi, seemed unmoved by these arguments.
On the day of the violence, Akhtar said, he saw the mob attack the mosque, which is near his house, then split up into small groups and fan out across the village. He was so frightened that he scooped up children and ran without waiting to turn off the teakettle that was boiling on the stove.
Though Akhtar has returned to Kharad since then, he said, he felt that something had changed permanently between himself and his neighbours. Among the damage he has sustained, he said, is a blow to his “self-esteem.”
“There is no question of going back,” he said. “They laugh and smile at us mockingly. They say, ‘Look, they dare to come back to the village.’ They say, ‘We threw these guys out, but they have no pride, they are still coming back.’?”
Akhtar says he has heard all the offers - to open a new police precinct near his house, to staff it with Muslim officers - and finds none of them convincing. He is adamant:
He will build a new home somewhere else, as soon as the government provides him with compensation. He does not care where, as long as he doesn’t see his old neighbours. “Security comes from being with Muslims,” Akhtar said. “There is no security for us there now.”–NY Times